The End of Cursive Writing?

April 27th, 2011

I don’t write in cursive. My penmanship is terrible, damn near illegible. In fact, I so seldom write that I’m sure my Needs Improvement grade in Penmanship from 2nd Grade would be unachievable today. It’s ok, I have a computer. And if I must use a pen, I print. No biggie. Well it turns out I’m not alone. The Times has a piece about how today’s generation is unable to write, and somewhat surprisingly, read, script!

Students nationwide are still taught cursive, but many school districts are spending far less time teaching it and handwriting in general than they were years ago, said Steve Graham, a professor of education at Vanderbilt University. Most schools start teaching cursive in third grade, Professor Graham said. In the past, most would continue the study until the fifth or sixth grades — and some to the eighth grade — but many districts now teach cursive only in third grade, with fewer lessons.

“Schools today, we say we’re preparing our kids for the 21st century,” said Jacqueline DeChiaro, the principal of Van Schaick Elementary School in Cohoes, N.Y., who is debating whether to cut cursive. “Is cursive really a 21st-century skill?”

Why does the Times suggest people need to write in script?

Might people who write only by printing — in block letters, or perhaps with a sloppy, squiggly signature — be more at risk for forgery? Is the development of a fine motor skill thwarted by an aversion to cursive handwriting? And what happens when young people who are not familiar with cursive have to read historical documents like the Constitution?

Don’t bring the Constitution into this! Anyway, it is transcribed online, so no worries.

Jimmy Bryant, director of Archives and Special Collections at Central Arkansas University, says that a connection to archival material is lost when students turn away from cursive. While teaching last year, Mr. Bryant, on a whim, asked students to raise their hands if they wrote in cursive as a way to communicate. None did.

I’ll admit that reading 19th-century cursive is quite tough. I spent a lot of time at the Library of Congress Archives scanning the papers of John Marshall Harlan. The tight-slanted cursive writing of that era was nearly indecipherable. I had to try really hard. So I will concede that forgetting about script makes it harder to read archive items.

My primary objection to writing in cursive is that it takes too much time. Sure it looks nice, but who really cares? Anything worthwhile I write will be typed. Aesthetics just don’t matter too much.

“These kids are losing time where they create beauty every day,” Professor Christen said. “But it’s hard for me to make a practical argument for it. I’m not one who’s mourning it because of that; I’m mourning the beauty, the aesthetics.”